Cock Up Of The Week (2)

If there is one thing I have learnt in life, it is never tempt fate. The National Health Service seem to make a habit of it, deeming certain circumstances as never events, errors of such gravity that they should never happen. Of course, they do, not with alarming regularity but with a frequency that suggests that they should be renamed as “things we would rather not happen but, hey ho, that’s life (or death in extremis)”.

A report on the University of Leicester NHS Trust just published includes a list of never events that, belying their name, have happened on their watch. The one that brought tears to my eyes was a poor chap who was booked in for a bladder cystoscopy. However, his notes were mixed up with another patient’s and he ended up with a circumcision.

Not the end of the world, for sure, but something that would take some explaining to the wife.

The moral of the story? Never say never.

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Luggage Of The Week

I have just got back from an enjoyable week’s trip to Spain. Unfortunately, my luggage decided that a six-day break was more than enough, thank you very much. It is somewhat disconcerting to receive an email as you get off the plane to receive an email informing you that your luggage did not make it on to the plane. I was reunited with my bag some 36 hours later.

A first world problem, for sure, and one that did not inconvenience me as much as Peter Messervy-Gross’ lost bags did him. Getting off a plane at the airport of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, he hung around the luggage carousel forlornly as it began to dawn on him that his bags weren’t there. As he was there to compete in the Mongol 100, a race across the frozen Khovsgol Nuur lake in northern Mongolia, it was a bit of a disaster.

A search for replacement running shoes proved fruitless as his plates are size thirteen and the largest size available was eleven.

But instead of settling down for a few days swilling fermented yak’s piss as most of us would have done in the circumstances, Peter is made of sterner stuff. He did the run in his four-year-old work shoes, a pair of brogues, which stood up well to the test, although Peter suffered painful blisters.

Even more amazingly, he completed the course in temperatures dropping down to as low as -25C. Peter didn’t win but it is the taking part that is the main thing, after all.

What Is The Origin Of (224)?…

Fathom out

To fathom something out is to deduce something or work something out. Often it is an involved process, involving the assimilation and sifting through of information from disparate sources. It can be a drawn-out process but suddenly the light dawns on you. You have fathomed something out.

As a unit of measure a fathom is a source of mystery to me. As a confirmed landlubber I hear nautical types talking glibly of fathoms and I haven’t a clue how long it is. It comes from the Old English word fæðm and dates from around the beginning of the 9th century. Principally, it was used to describe an embrace and, by extension (ahem), the length of the outstretched arms. In crude terms, a fathom became the length from finger tip to finger tip of two outstretched arms.

The problem, of course, with a rule of thumb measurement like this is that not everyone’s arms are the same length. The variances that deviations of physique could bring to determining the length of a fathom led to inconsistencies. In 1728 Ephraim Chamber’s Cyclopaedia noted that “there are three kinds of Fathoms. The first, which is that of Men of War, contains six feet; The middling, or that of Merchant Ships, five Feet, and a half; and the small one, used in Flyts, Flyboats, and other Fishing-vessels, only Five feet.” Whether this relected the differences of stature in the matelots who sailed these different boats, I know not.

In an effort to standardise the measurement, the British Admiralty decreed that a fathom was the equivalent of a thousandth of a nautical mile, making it 1.85 metres or about 6feet one inch. Recognising the confusion that relying on fathoms could cause, nautical charts used feet to denote depths of less than 30 feet and fathoms for deeper waters. Perhaps they had fathomed out that the need for precision only pertained in shallower waters.

From the 14th century onwards, the verb fathom was used to describe the act of encircling someone or thing with your arms and so, if you were embracing someone, you were fathoming them. And by the 16th century fathoming out was a phrase used to measure something by embracing it with your arms. Describing the attempt of seven men to measure some large trees by putting their arms around them, Richard Eden wrote in The Decades of the Newe Worlde, in 1555; “with theyr armes stretched further were scarsely able too fathame aboute.

It took no great leap of imagination to use the phrase in a figurative sense. After all, in order to understand something you needed to get your arms around all the information at your disposal. So, in 1625, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, don’t we all need that, a comedy by Philip Massinger, we find; “The Statesman beleeues he fathomes/ the counsels of all Kingdomes on the earth.

Fathoming out was used around the same time to describe a method deployed by sailors to determine how close they were to the bottom of the sea. In Sir William Brereton’s Travels in Holland from 1634 we find this passage; “fathoming the depth of the water over against the Brill, we found it there…that we had not above two feet more water than the ship drew.

But for landlubbers, Massinger’s figurative usage won out.

It’s The Way I Tell ‘Em (34)

As the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart, I thought I would try to cheer us all up.

  • “Crime in multi-storey car parks. That is wrong on so many different levels.” Tim Vine (2011)
  • “I have downloaded this new app. Its great, it tells you what to wear, what to eat and if you’ve put on weight. Its called the Daily Mail.” Hayley Ellis (2016)
  • “When I was younger I felt like a man trapped inside a woman’s body. Then I was born.” Yianni (2015)
  • “I was playing chess with my friend and he said, ‘Let’s make this interesting’. So we stopped playing chess.” Matt Kirshen (2011)
  • “I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59 because I like that one-to-one time.” Tom Ward (2015)
  • “I used to be addicted to swimming but I’m very proud to say I’ve been dry for six years.” Alfie Moore (2013)
  • “I was raised as an only child, which really annoyed my sister.” Will Marsh (2012)
  • “You know you’re working class when your TV is bigger than your book case.” Rob Beckett (2012)
  • “Most of my life is spent avoiding conflict. I hardly ever visit Syria.” Alex Horne (2014)
  • “Life is like a box of chocolates. It doesn’t last long if you’re fat.” Joe Lycett (2014)
  • “You can’t lose a homing pigeon. If your homing pigeon doesn’t come back, then what you’ve lost is a pigeon.” Sara Pascoe (2014)
  • “My Dad said, always leave them wanting more. Ironically, that’s how he lost his job in disaster relief.”Mark Watson (2014)
  • “One thing you’ll never hear a Hindu say… ‘Ah well, you only live once.”Hardeep Singh Kohli (2014)
  • “As a kid I was made to walk the plank. We couldn’t afford a dog.” Gary Delaney (2010)
  • “I saw a documentary on how ships are kept together. Riveting!” Stewart Francis (2012)
  • “Today… I did seven press ups: not in a row.” Daniel Kitson (2012)
  • “People say I’ve got no willpower but I’ve quit smoking loads of times.”Kai Humphries (2014)
  • “My friend got a personal trainer a year before his wedding. I thought: ‘Bloody hell, how long’s the aisle going to be’.” Paul McCaffrey (2014)
  • “Golf is not just a good walk ruined, it’s also the act of hitting things violently with a stick ruined.” John Luke-Roberts (2016)
  • “Oh my god, mega drama the other day: My dishwasher stopped working! Yup, his visa expired.” Alexander Henry Buchanan-Dunlop (2014)

Book Corner – March 2019 (4)

The Spoilt City – Olivia Manning

The second of what is known as Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, continues the tale of Guy and Harriet Pringle. The storm clouds of war are gathering around Bucharest, rumours abound that the Germans are going to occupy the country, or perhaps the Russians, and there are fascist marches, uprisings and, eventually, a coup.

Bizarrely, but true to form, the Brits, marooned in the city, go about their business, trying to go about their daily business. Part of what they perceive to be the role of the British is to preserve the cultural life of the city. So a distinguished academic, Lord Pinkrose, is flown in on the pretext of delivering a few keynote lectures on English poetry, just what the locals need. And Guy, fresh from his triumph of staging Troilus and Cressida, immerses himself in running a summer school for the dwindling band of students who are able or minded to continue their studies.

Although the book is structured as a stand-alone story, many of the characters we came across in the first book, The Great Fortune, populate its pages. The comic sponger, Prince Yakimov, is now living with them and a new waif and stray, a potentially dangerous one at that, Sasha, a deserter and a Jew to boot, has joined the Pringles, hiding away in the attic. Inevitably Manning has to allude to events that featured in the first book to allow new readers to catch up, a mildly irritating feature for those readers to whom the first book is still fresh in the memory but an understandable ploy, nonetheless.

The newly wed Harriet is becoming more and more irritated by her husband, Guy. Universally admired, a good egg, she sees that his willingness to immerse himself into projects that seem futile is his way of coming to terms with the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself and into which he has brought his young bride. But she also detects that Guy sees her as part of himself rather than a separate individual. Gut automatically assumes that what he wants, she wants, a tension that comes to the fore in the second half of the book, when je stubbornly refuses to leave Bucharest when all the other ex-pats are fleeing.

Eventually, after the assualt on his boss, Inchcape, the discovery of Sasha and the raid on their flat, Guy reluctantly agrees that Harriet should leave Bucharest for Athens. The book ends with the assumption that Guy will join her, as soon as he is able.

In real life, Manning arrived as a newly-wed in Bucharest at the outbreak of the war and it is tempting, and probably correct, to assume that her experiences informed her vivid portrayal of a city whose confidence and resistance is crumbling, apprehensive of its future. The characterisation is vivid and the use of small, often comic, sometimes chilling, vignettes to illustrate the mundanities, indignities and frustrations of everyday life and the perils facing an eclectic and eccentric group of Brits thrown together is well judged.

It is a fast read and there is more action and drama contained within its pages than in the first volume. If I had a criticism, it is that Manning’s narrative didn’t involve and immerse me as I thought it might. I felt as though I was a bystander, watching the action from the sidelines.

Still, on to the third!

Double Your Money – Part Thirty Nine

Adele Spitzeder (1832 – 1895)

If you are short of money, why not set up your own bank?

Adele Spitzeder, an aspiring German actress, was familiar with moneylenders. After all, she had to visit them regularly to fund her lifestyle. Having observed their business techniques, she decided to launch a money-lending scheme of her own in the autumn of 1869, which bore all the hallmarks of a Ponzi scheme, half a century before Charles appropriated that form of fraud as his own.

Adele’s first investor was the wife of a carpenter, who lived in Munich’s poor district, Au. Lured by the promise of a return of 10% per month, she gave Adele 100 Gulden and, sure enough, received 20 Gulden a month later. News of this money-making phenomenon spread like wildfire amongst the poorer quarters of Munich and soon our entrepreneur found herself inundated with willing investors. At the height of its success she employed around 40 people.

To say Adele’s business methods were unconventional is an understatement. Deposits were kept in sacks in her house or, occasionally, in a safe in a nearby hairdresser’s salon. Her staff, unfamiliar with the requirements of accountancy, merely kept records of who had deposited what. Because most of the investors were illiterate, the receipts they signed often bore little more than a series of crosses and scratches. Not that that deterred the investors. Adele kept meeting her obligations, in that valuable commodity, cash, and that was good enough for them. Another point in her favour was that she wasn’t Jewish, the faith of most moneylenders.

To give the scheme the patina of respectability, Adele called her operation Spitzeder Privatbank, but it also went under the name of Dachauer Bank, to appeal to those clients who lived on the northern side of Munich. It was inevitable that her success would attract the attention of the authorities. In the spring of 1871 the Bavarian government tried to find a reason to shut down her operation but as Adele was paying the stated interest at the appropriate time, they could not find a reason to do so. And Adele was a fighter. When later that year the Munich city authorities sought to tax her operation as a bank and impose a greater degree of regulatory scrutiny, she successfully fought off the challenge.

But you can only delay the inevitable for so long. The principal problem with a Ponzi scheme, which pays interest out of depositors’ capital, is that it is vulnerable if investors demand their principal back. In February 1872, the Munchner Neueste Nachricten ran a series of articles intended to discredit Adele’s scheme. Proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the newspaper led to more investors enrolling than worried souls withdrawing their savings.

Towards the end of 1872, the court in Munich ruled that Adele’s business had to be registered formally and that it had to abide by the accounting standards of the day. Forty investors, corralled by the police, presented a petition to the courts requesting a formal audit of Adele’s books. On 12th November five auditors turned up on Adele’s doorstep, along with another group of 60 investors, recruited by a rival bank, demanding the return of their capital.

It was all too much. Adele didn’t have enough readies to meet demands and despite, like all good fraudsters, attempting to flee, she was arrested carrying what money she had. The police took control of her offices to prevent it being raided by angry customers. It was estimated that some 32,000 investors were defrauded of some 38 million Gulden and only 15% of the deposits were ever recovered. The news of the scheme’s collapse prompted a wave of suicides.

Adele served three years in chokey for improper accounting but, surprisingly, not for fraud. The laws of the time did not deem her scheme illegal. Still, she spent her time inside profitably, writing her memoirs, and then slipped away from the pages of history.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/business/fifty-scams-and-hoaxes/

Error Of The Week (3)

For some unaccountable reason, I have been thinking about the erstwhile British Prime Minister, David Cameron. No, I’m not talking about Brexit but that famous occasion when even his most ardent supporters might have had an inkling that he wasn’t up to the job.

I’m talking about the time in June 2012 when he and his wife drove off in separate cars, leaving behind his eldest daughter, Nancy, in the Plough Inn at Cadsden in Buckinghamshire. As the poor girl was only eight at the time, she probably wouldn’t have been as pleased at an enforced stay in the pub as a teenager would have. Fifteen minutes later an embarrassed Mrs Cameron returned to pick her up.

Parental amnesia, tempting as it may be in theory, is rare in practice and, indeed, it is hard to imagine how it could happen but it does. The scheduled Saudi Airlines flight SV832 from Jeddah to Kuala Lumpur, had to make an unscheduled return to King Abdul Aziz airport. The reason?

One of the passengers suddenly remembered that she had left her baby in the airport lounge and was kicking up a fuss, wanting the plane to turn round. The captain radioed Air Traffic Control, received the OK to return, woman and child were reunited, and the flight took off again.

As for the rest of the passengers, not only were they an hour behind schedule, they had to put up with a bawling baby for the duration of the flight.

The legacy of Cameron lives on in many ways.